Bath calls itself the City of Ships. Located on the Kennebec River with its deep water and gently rising shore, Bath has always been a perfect place to launch a boat. Through the years, more than 100 shipyards have populated its shores. Today, the huge cranes of Bath Iron Works, which builds ships for the US Navy, dominate the skyline, and BIW is the main local employer. But this little gem of a city is much more than a busy shipyard now. It boasts a compact, lively downtown free of chain stores and modern eyesores, and with many gracious old homes. The significance of its architecture led the National Trust for Historic Preservation to name it one of the 12 most distinctive destinations in the nation. Bath also offers a terrific maritime museum, some fine inns and restaurants, opportunities for canoeing and kayaking, an array of river cruises, and what officials claim is the best bass fishing on the East Coast. The Chocolate Church Arts Center, an 1847 Gothic Revival structure named for its dark brown color, offers year-round concerts and other performances. Nearby are glorious Popham Beach State Park and several wildlife preserves and sanctuaries.
SpendBath Iron Works may be the largest employer, but the commercial shops downtown are the heart of Bath today. Stores range from the Design Connection (132 Front St., 207-443-7406), offering posh home furnishings and clothing, to Renys (86 Front St., 207-443-6251), a discount department store with all sorts of odds and ends: Dum Dum gum, CD players, flower bulbs, sportswear, camp supplies, and more.
Lisa Marie's Made in Maine (170 Front St., 207-443-2225), sells local arts and crafts and specialty foods. The Mariners' Compass Quilt Shop and Fingerguard Safety Ruler Co. (190 Front St., 207-443-2900) has handmade local quilts, sewing supplies, and quilt-making classes. Halcyon Yarn (12 School St., 207-442-7909) is lauded by Martha Stewart for its array of yarn and fiber crafts. Now You're Cooking (49 Front St., 207-443-1402) sells assorted kitchen appliances, picnic supplies, and food-related gadgets.
This town of under 10,000 has four independent bookstores. The most unusual is The Library Bookstore (194 Front St., 207-443-1161), a nonprofit shop run by volunteers who sell donated books to support the local library. Bath also boasts several antiques shops, including Brick Store Antiques (143 Front St., 207-443-2790) and I Must Have It (180 Front St., 207-443-1064).
DoTo get to know Bath, take the historic district exit off Route 1 and follow signs to the riverside area along Commercial Street. A pleasant walk leads through a waterfront park and along the Kennebec River. At the visitors center (15 Commercial St., 207-442-7100) pick up a map with a free, self-guided walking tour of Bath's historic architecture and amble around its attractive core. Impressive homes and businesses have Greek Revival, Italianate, Romanesque, and Victorian styles. Or hop aboard the old-fashioned trolley that loops around the city (fare $1).
The city's boatbuilding heritage and other marine topics are explored in detail at the Maine Maritime Museum, well worth an extended visit.
PlayRecreational activities center on the Kennebec River and two terrific state parks: Popham Beach State Park, just down scenic Route 209, and Reid State Park, across the Kennebec on Georgetown Island. Both have beautiful sand beaches and good opportunities for swimming, beach-walking, and tide pool exploration.
Long Reach Cruises (870 Washington St., 888-538-6786) and the Maine Maritime Museum (243 Washington St., 207-443-1316) offer narrated river and coastal cruises, including river lighthouse tours. Several outfitters rent canoes and kayaks to folks who want to navigate their own adventures, including Up the Creek Kayak and Canoe Rentals, (39 Main Road, Route 209, 207-443-4845). Great Gadzooks Tidewater Fishing (132 Drummer St., 207-720-0857) and Obsession Sportfishing Charters (144 Whiskeag Road, 207-442-8581) are among several companies offering fishing charters. Kennebec Angler (97 Commercial St., 207-442-8239) is a central referral service for guides and boats.
The area also has several nature preserves and sanctuaries with pleasant hiking trails, including Thorne Head Nature Preserve off High Street at the north end of town.
PartyThe Chocolate Church Arts Center (798 Washington St., 207-442-8455, chocolatechurcharts.org) is the main place for night life in Bath. The center offers a range of concerts, dance performances, plays, and other events year-round. Several restaurants host musical groups, especially on weekends. Among them are Beale Street Barbeque (215 Water St., 207-442-9514) and Solo Bistro Bistro (128 Front St., 207-443-3373).
FuelBath's top gourmet restaurant is Solo Bistro Bistro, with spare Scandinavian decor and a wine bar. Here chef Esau Crosby serves up eclectic dishes like salmon with yucca root mash or ricotta dumplings. The best deal in town on winter Wednesdays is his three-course meal for $15.99.
The most popular hangout may be Café Crème (56 Front St., 207-443-6454), a good place for coffee, a pastry, and information about upcoming events. Locals also love MaryEllenz Caffè (15 Vine St., 207-442-0960), where two chefs, both named Mary Ellen, cook Mediterranean tapas and Southern Italian staples; and Beale Street Barbeque offers smoked and Cajun dishes in a bluesy atmosphere. Bath also offers a culinary oddity, Marnee's Cookie Bistro, an eatery devoted solely to cookies (23 Elm St., 442-0926).
For a great meal in the adjacent area, the hands-down heavyweight is chef Josh DeGroot at Sweet Leaves Teahouse, eight miles away in Brunswick (22 Pleasant St., 207-725-1376). His changing menu features local and seasonal ingredients, including a Maine cheese plate and produce from 52 area farms. Sommelier/owner Jessica Gorton will recommend fine wine pairings.
In summer, the most inviting ambience is the Kennebec Tavern (119 Commercial St., 207-442-9636), with its outdoor riverside deck but mediocre food. Have a drink or an appetizer and watch the river traffic.
RestBath offers several pleasant B&Bs, all open year-round. The Inn at Bath (969 Washington St., 207-443-4294, innatbath.com, $140-$200 for two, depending on the season, including breakfast) is a comfortable, inviting inn in an 1810 Greek Revival home with lovely gardens and lots of antiques. Some rooms have wood-burning fireplaces and Jacuzzis.
Everything is one-of-a-kind at the eclectic Kismet Inn (44 Summer St., 207-443-3399, kismetinnmaine.com, $200-$255, with breakfast and tea). In this turreted Queen Anne across from Library Park, owner Shadi Towfighi has created a tranquil, meditative atmosphere. Dinner, also available to the public, is slow-cooked from local organic ingredients. Spa services available.
The Galen C. Moses House (1009 Washington St., 888-442-8771, galenmoses.com, $109-$159 depending on season, including a full breakfast) offers ornate Victorian flair and its own ghost.
The Benjamin F. Packard House (455 Pearl St., 866-361-6004, 207-443-6004, mainecoast.com/packardhouse, $90-$170 depending on season, including a full breakfast and afternoon tea) is an 18th-century shipbuilder's home now owned by especially friendly, helpful hosts. Comfortable rooms have antique furnishings and shared access to a large patio.